By Rusty Priske, Brian Yoon, and Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Crab Embassy in Toshi Ranbo matched Kamui’s mental picture of it. It was not large, but it was very solidly built. It looked more like a blockhouse than a diplomatic residence, which was appropriate since the Crab delegation was not generally known for their diplomatic skills. Kamui rapped on the outer door and waited for a response. He did not expect the one he got.
A voice bellowed from within the embassy, “What are you waiting for? The kami to herald your arrival? Get in here!”
Kamui paused, surprised, before pulling the door aside and stepping through. The inside of the building created no dissonance with the outside. It was as expected: blocky, stark and unadorned with finery. Near the door, behind a low desk, sat a man who appeared to be the clerk. He was small for a Crab â€“ which still left him as an average sized man â€“ with ink-stained fingers. He looked up at Kamui with an expression that sat somewhere between weary and disinterested.
This clerk was not the source of the bellow. Across the room stood a large man. Not large in the way that most Crab are large, but wide across the middle like an overstuffed boar. Kamui first thought was that this man was corpulent to the point of obesity, but he quickly realized that there was far too much muscle to dismiss him as being merely fleshy and porcine.
As this large man spoke again, Kamui recognized him.
“What? Who is this? You aren’t from the Lit Lantern!”
“I am Kaiu Kamui,” he bowed deeply, “and I would know you anywhere. You are Yasuki Takai.”
Takai scowled. “If you weren’t a Kaiu, I would say you must be a bill collector.”
Kumui bowed again. “Not at all. I am an admirer, Takai-sama. I saw you battle Shindana at Kyuden Hida. You are surely the greatest sumo fighter who ever lived!”
Takai’s grimace turned into a chuckle. “You follow the matches? You know me?”
Admiration glowed on Kamui’s face. “Who does not? The name Yasuki Takai has great resonance. You are very famous, Takai-sama!”
The large man’s fine turned wry. “Not as much as you might think. The court does not think much of sumo prowess, except as a distraction.” He paused. “So, I could offer you some food and drink, but that idiot from the Lit Lantern is overdue. I thought you were he! He should be here soon.”
Kamui bowed for what seemed like to tenth time. “I would appreciate that. I just arrived in Toshi Ranbo and the trip was long and dry.”
Takai nodded and turned to the clerk. “See what is taking the boy.”
“I will, but first I must ask what Kamui-san is doing in Toshi Ranbo. Do you have orders?”
Takai turned back to Kamui. “You had best answer his questions. He gets to be ornery when he cannot follow his precious protocol.”
“This is no problem.” Kamui produced a scroll from within his kimono and handed it to the clerk. “I was told to come to Toshi Ranbo and report here. I was not told why.”
The clerk looked at the seal on the scroll and his eyebrow shot up. “These orders came from Kuon.”
The clerk started flipping through a pile of papers on his desk. “That must mean you are…” he found the object of his search and nodded. “Yes, here it is. It is you.” The clerk looked to Takai and then back to Kamui. “It seems that our new friend here as been summoned to see the Empress.”
The surprise on Takai’s face was only a fraction of what was expressed by Kamui. In near-unison they said, “The Empress? Why?”
The clerk shook his head. “It does not say. What it does say is that he is to appear at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Takai turned to Kamui. “It seems then that our repast must wait a little longer, Kamui-san. I need to take you to see her divinity, Iweko the First!”
* * *
Yasuki Takai announced their presence and the two Crab were rushed to an antechamber, where they knelt and waited. The former sumo wrestler felt the pain in his knees within the first hour, but did not complain. On the way from the embassy, Takai had admitted to Kamui that he had not had an audience with Iweko and had thanked him for the opportunity.
For Kamui’s part he stayed virtually silent the entire way. He had not understood Kuon’s orders but had never suspected that the Empress herself had summoned him. He was simply a craftsman, mostly overlooked by his fellow Crab samurai.
As they approached the second hour, a door slid open and a finely dressed Scorpion entered the chamber. Kamui did not recognize him, but he followed Takai’s lead and buried his face into the floor.
“You are the Crab artisan? You do not need to prostrate yourself. Kneeling will suffice.” Kamui did as instructed, though Takai remained as he was. “Well?”
“I am Kaiu Kamui. I am told that I was summoned to see the Empress.”
The Scorpion smirked. “That is not quite accurate, but it will suffice. I assume that since you are new to Toshi Ranbo that you do not know who I am. My name is Bayushi Hisoka.”
Kamui bowed as deeply as possible without returning to his prostrate position. “Chancellor.”
Hisoka nodded. “You have heard of me then? That will make things easier.” He turned to Takai. “You may leave now.”
Takai rose to his feet, with disappointment not quite hidden on his face, and left the chamber.
The Chancellor turned back to Kamui. “So you have been summoned to appear before Empress Iweko. Do you know why?”
“No? No suspicions?”
Hisoka smirked. “I am sure the Empress will enlighten you in due course. Prior to that, I would have you answer a few questions. What are the Crab saying about the ascension of Empress Iweko, and the appointments she has made?”
Kamui looked puzzled as he said, “The Crab respect and follow the Empress. We have pledged ourselves to her. She is the living embodiment of divine will.”
Hisoka looked levelly at him. “You did not wish another received the blessings of the heavens? Hida Sozen, perhaps?”
Kamui face stiffened. “None in the Crab would question the will of the heavens.”
“And what of the proclamations and appointments? Do you think another would be better suited as Shogun? Would a Yasuki as Imperial Treasurer suit you?”
Kamui eyed the Chancellor. “The Crab are certain that the Empress chose individuals with great virtue. We are also certain that someday we will know what those virtues are.”
Hisoka’s smile took on a predatory tone. “Ah, the legendary Crab knack for diplomacy. Do not be offended, Kamui-san. I ask you only because you are recently arrived, and therefore are more likely to tell me the truth rather than what you have been instructed to say.”
“I take no offense, Chancellor-sama.”
“But you do not trust me.”
Kamui’s eyes flashed. “I trust the Empress had her reasons for your selection.”
“Just so. Well said, Kamui-san. Yet there is still something in your eyes. If you have something to say, say it. Do not fear retribution from me. We are in private and I wish to know what you are thinking.”
Kamui thought for a moment and then said, “I still remember Hida Kisada. I do not claim to understand the workings of politics, but I felt the loss when he died.”
Hisoka nodded. “And you feel I am in some way responsible for his death?” Kamui said nothing and Hisoka continued. “Not me, specifically, but my clan.” He paused again and then said, “I will give you some advice, Kamui-san. I promised you that there would be no retribution, and I stand by my word. However, when you find yourself working for Shosuro Jimen, do not let your fanciful imaginings escape, or you will find your stay very short.” The look on Hisoka’s face made it very clear to Kamui that he did not mean he would be sent home.
“Shosuro Jimen? Am I to be a magistrate?”
Before Hisoka could answer, a door slid open and an Otomo stepped inside. “My apologies Chancellor, but Kaiu Kamui’s presence is requested.”
Hisoka nodded and then quietly spoke to Kamui one last time. “Remember what I said, Kamui-san. My dispensation to speak freely ends now.”
Bayushi Hisoka vanished out a different door and Kamui was ushered past the Otomo. He was herded down a short hall before entering a large throne room. Kamui had never been to Toshi Ranbo, so he could not see what changes had been made, but he was sure that the screens surrounding the dais were not present during Naseru’s reign.
The Otomo motioned for Kamui to kneel, and he prostrated himself, facing the screens.
“You are Kaiu Kamui?” The Crab did not recognize the man’s voice, but he was certain who it was. Word traveled quickly in Rokugan.
Kamui returned to his feet, trying not to show any nerves. Standing next to the screen was Satsu, the Voice of the Emperor. The former Dragon Champion looked stern and serious, but not angry. “The Empress thanks you for answering her summons so quickly.”
“A summons from the Empress in an honor. I came immediately, as commanded, Satsu-sama.”
“Yes. Who have you spoken to since arriving in Toshi Ranbo?”
“Yasuki Takai, at the Crab embassy, as well as the clerk there, I believe his name is Irunai. Also, I spoke to the Chancellor just before I was called.”
“And did Bayushi Hisoka tell you why you were summoned here?”
Kamui shook his head. “He did not. He mentioned something about working for Shosuro Jimen, which made me think I was being made an Emerald Magistrate, but then I thought that I would be summoned to the Emerald Champion, himself, and not the Empress, if that were the case.”
Satsu nodded. “The Empress would not appoint each Emerald Magistrate herself, this is correct. That is not why you have been summoned, however.” He reached behind the screen. Kamui could see movement through its translucence. It seemed Iweko handed something to Satsu. He produced a saya with jade inlaid along the edges and small gems in the shape of a flower surrounding the kurigata. It was clearly a masterwork. Kamui had seen this piece before.
“You recognize it.” This was not a question.
Kamui nodded. “I made it. I was attempting to master a new technique.”
Satsu turned the saya over in his hands. “Yes. It is clearly inferior to your later work, yet it is still masterful. The Empress is pleased by it, and your more recent accomplishments.”
Kamui bowed his head. “I am honored, Satsu-sama.”
“Yet it is rare to see work of this style in the hands of the Crab.”
“That is true, Satsu-sama. We have little time to spare for things that are beautiful, but useless. It took me many months to properly combine form and function.”
Satsu nodded. “That is what the Empress saw in it as well. That is why she has tasked you with making more items. Not just sayas, but a full range of items that symbolize certain offices within the Empire. It was your use of gemstones that has particularly caught her eye.”
Kamui bowed again. “I am at the Divine One’s service. My skills belong to her.”
“She has bestowed upon you the title of Jeweled Smith. You will be responsible for the creation of a full range of accoutrements for the Emerald, Jade, Ruby, Amethyst and Topaz Champions. Do you understand your charge?”
Kamui wore a stunned expression, which quickly was overwritten by pride. “I understand, Satsu-sama. I am honored to be of such a service.”
“Facilities are being prepared for you. Word will be sent to the Crab Embassy when they are finished. Now, be off. The Empress has many people to see today.”
The sun had set and temperature was rapidly dropping, but Matsu Fumiyo showed no outward sign of her discomfort. She stood on the eastern wall of Shiro Matsu, her home, and fixed her gaze on the road that led to the castle. The night shift along the wall was not popular, but Fumiyo had volunteered for the duty. The events on Seppun Hill had occurred two days ago, and the results were still unknown. Both Matsu Aoiko and Matsu Kenji participated in the tournament and Fumiyo held out a small hope that they had brought the highest glory of all to their family.
Another hour passed before the sound of horse steps reached Fumiyo’s ears. She drew the torch closer and surveyed the road before her. There was a single rider on the road, coming at full speed toward the castle. She could barely make out the mon of the Miya family on his back banner.
“Open the gates!” Fumiyo called out, looking behind her. “It is an Imperial messenger!”
The gates slowly began to part as the Lion followed her instructions. Fumiyo turned back to the exterior of the castle. Her heart beat loudly within her chest as excitement slowly grew within her. She squinted to try to decipher any details from the approaching Miya. There was a second banner attached to his back and it fluttered in the wind as he rode at full speed. It looked to be a personal mon of some sort, but Fumiyo could not recognize it.
Fumiyo waved the nearest soldier on patrol and the woman hurried over. It was Matsu Sakaki, her mentor. Fumiyo’s eyes widened with surprise. “Sakaki-san!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“I volunteered for the duty as you did,” Sakaki replied with a grin. The scar on her face stretched with her expression, but Fumiyo had long ceased to notice it. Sakaki sauntered over and stood next to the younger Matsu. She stared out at the road and continued to speak. “You are not the only woman interested in news of Kenji-sama, sister. We are all behind her efforts.”
Fumiyo gestured to the rider. “Can you see the second back banner? I don’t recognize the kanji.”
Fumiyo watched the older woman’s face as she scrutinized the Miya rider. Her smile slowly faded and a somber expression replaced it. “It is the personal mon of one of the Dragon Clan daimyos. The Miya bears the mon of Kitsuki Iweko.”
Fumiyo’s heart plummeted. “Long live the Empress,” she whispered.
* * *
Several days passed. The Lion delegates to the tournament returned to their homes with elaborate ceremony: though they failed to achieve the position of Emperor, they had all honored their ancestors with their performance. The hubbub behind the tournament still raged on among the samurai and the leaders of the Clan had not been forthcoming with information. The presence of a Unicorn samurai at the ceremony did not go unnoticed and rumors spread through the file and rank like wildfire. Reports stated that Aoiko lost in an early match. Kenji progressed much further than her companion but in a surprise upset she lost to Moto Jin-Sahn in a kenjutsu match.
For Fumiyo, life was beginning to return to normal. She trained hard whenever she was not at duty. She served on patrol around Shiro Matsu and returned to the barracks every night, exhausted. As she returned home from a long patrol around the Matsu province, she almost regretted the end of the war. At least on the campaign field, Fumiyo mused, she had felt a sense of direction and purpose. She did not believe that anyone could have succeeded over her role model Matsu Kenji. The assignment of a Unicorn as Shogun was another blow to Fumiyo’s morale. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Fumiyo was not sure this was all happening.
A messenger came to her quarters, interrupting her as she began to unlace her armor. “Fumiyo-san,” the young girl said, “Matsu Kenji-sama requires your presence immediately in the audience chamber.”
Fumiyo nodded. “I will be there immediately.” She looked down at her attire. It would not be proper to appear in her daimyo’s presence in armor, yet she had asked for her immediate attendance. It would be worse to keep her waiting. She laced back the few ties she had unraveled and headed back outside her barracks.
She ran across the courtyard and hurried toward her destination. The guards at the door looked, a puzzled look on each face, as the young samurai-ko rushed past them. Fumiyo reached the audience chamber in moments. She paused to gather her breath before pushing against the door.
Matsu Kenji and her guests looked up as the creaks of the opening door reached them. Fumiyo paused at the doorway and bowed deeply. “Matsu Fumiyo reporting as ordered, Kenji-sama,” she said. “Forgive me my attire, but I have just returned from patrol and did not wish to keep you waiting.”
“The Matsu are all warriors,” said a young Unicorn sitting at the table. “You give offense to no one.”
Kenji gestured her closer to the group. “Welcome, Fumiyo-san. I believe most of these faces are familiar to you.”
Fumiyo straightened from her bow and looked at each of the individuals in turn. Matsu Kenji seemed unharmed from her trials, though she seemed older than Fumiyo remembered. The others in the room were younger than the Matsu daimyo, but still held high station within the Lion. Ikoma Hagio, second son of Ikoma Korin, sat at Kenji’s side. He looked nothing like his fallen father, who had been famed for his calm demeanor. It was easy to recognize the fire and determination that burned within the new Ikoma daimyo. Kitsu Kiyoko, eldest daughter of Katsuko, sat at the edge of the table. She lacked the golden wisdom that emanated from her mother’s eyes, and she looked almost out of place at this meeting of daimyos. A slight look of disquiet seemed to cross her face from time to time and Fumiyo felt for her loss. The events of the past few weeks looked to weigh heavily on her shoulders.
There was one more person at the table, a young Unicorn man. She did not recognize him but his attire was certainly recognizable. He wore a purple kimono adorned with both the mon of the Unicorn Clan and the White Guard. Fumiyo knew the White Guard well. They attacked with a ferocity that even the Matsu family found worthy.
“Hagio-sama, Kiyoko-sama. It is a pleasure to see you again.”
Hagio acknowledged Fumiyo’s presence with a small nod and Kiyoko gave the young woman a small smile. Kenji said, “Our guest is Moto Jin-Sahn, the new Shogun of the Empire.”
Fumiyo knelt and bowed deeply to the Shogun. “It is an honor to meet you, Jin-Sahn-sama.”
“You welcome me to your home. The honor is mine,” Jin-Sahn replied, inclining his head at Fumiyo.
“Come, sit,” Kenji said. Fumiyo walked forward and tentatively knelt at the edge of the table.
“Jin-Sahn came with us when all the events of the day resolved,” Kenji continued. “He came to ask a boon of the Lion Clan, and I wanted you present for the meeting.”
Fumiyo did not dare ask why.
“My second in command, Shiba Danjuro, awaits my return to the Shogun’s armies along the Unicorn/Lion border,” Jin-Sahn said. “I have been given a great duty from the new Empress and I have no desire to see it fail.”
Kenji nodded. “I recognize that it is a secret duty, Jin-Sahn, and I only ask how the Lion may help you serve the Empire.”
“The armies of my position are powerful,” Jin-Sahn said, “but every Rokugani knows that the armies of the Lion Clan are the most skilled among the entire realm. I saw that strength first hand when I faced you on the fields surrounding Shiro Moto. Now that I am Shogun, I would channel that power. I ask for a portion of that might so that I may ferret out and destroy the enemies of the Empire.”
“Of course,” Hagio responded immediately. “The Lion Clan exists to serve. We cannot and will not refuse an order from the Shogun.”
Jin-Sahn turned his gaze on the young Ikoma. He did not speak, but his expression showed his surprise. Fumiyo knew what must be running through the Unicorn’s mind. The Lion and the Unicorn had been at odds for close to a decade of warfare. Such a sudden acquiescence must have felt unexpected. Fumiyo knew Jin-Sahn would not insult the Lion’s honor by giving voice to that doubt but she did not blame him for holding such thoughts.
“I appreciate such candor, Hagio-san,” Jin-Sahn finally said with a deep bow in his direction. “The Lion reputation for unquestionable honor is well deserved.”
“We will dedicate twelve legions for your needs, Jin-Sahn,” Kenji said. “We cannot offer more without threatening our own defenses. Many of our ranks are yet unfilled in the aftermath of so much war in recent years.”
“That is more than enough for my goal. And the officers?” Jin-Sahn asked.
“Each unit has its own line of command, but they will submit to whatever will fit your needs. They can be flexible to complement your current forces.” Kenji turned to Fumiyo, who had silently kept up with the conversation. “You will need someone to help facilitate the incorporation of so many troops into your existing forces. I do ask that Matsu Fumiyo enters your command group as liaison to the Lion forces. She is young and bright, and I believe she will be excellent at the task.”
Fumiyo clenched her fists tight to avoid expressing her surprise. Her fingernails dug deep into her palm, but she maintained a serene air as everyone in the room turned to look at her.
“Of course,” Jin-Sahn said. “I have no intention of shaming the Lion by not utilizing their power at the full potential.” He rose to his feet and everyone in the room followed suit. “If you will excuse me, I must see to my army. Fumiyo-san, I will see you on the Lion-Unicorn border within a few days.”
Fumiyo nodded numbly. “Of course,” she managed to respond.
Jin-Sahn smiled and bowed. “Until then,” he said, and he was gone.
Kenji turned to Fumiyo and laughed at the expression on her face. “What is it, Fumiyo-san?”
She turned to her daimyo. Now that the guest was gone, she could no longer hold back her distress. “Kenji-sama, I am not ready for such a responsibility. I am a simple soldier with no rank. Aren’t there older, more skilled samurai ready for the task?”
“Do not underestimate yourself,” Hagio said, frowning, “and do not doubt the decisions of your daimyo. If she believes you can do it, there should be no hesitation in your mind.”
“I received many reports during the march to Shiro Moto,” Kenji said. “Your superior officer Akodo Hachigoro brought your skills to my attention several months ago. He said you were excellent on and off the battlefield, and your youthful vigor is admirable. He said you proved yourself on several occasions against the Unicorn armies, and I have watched your behavior since you returned to this castle. This is an opportunity to observe and learn how to manage an army, Fumiyo. I am sure you will not let it slip by.”
The approval in Kenji’s eyes was everything Fumiyo wanted, and she let her gaze fall to the floor. She could feel warmth in her cheeks as she blushed.
“Even if it will be in service to a Unicorn,” Hagio spat. “I cannot understand how he achieved the position over the likes of Otemi-sama. I almost wished he would insult our honor under our roof so we would have justification to challenge him to a duel.”
“Be careful where you express such thoughts, Hagio-san,” Kiyoko warned. “With your new position, you have great responsibilities to the Clan. Acting blindly will only destroy that purpose.”
“You are right,” Hagio agreed. He seemed to visibly deflate. “Of course, I will not be so brash in front of outsiders.”
“Serve Lion interests, Fumiyo-san,” Kenji ordered. “Destroy our enemies and serve with honor. If you follow those mandates, you will have no trouble in ascending in status. Act well, Fumiyo, and you may find yourself leading the Lion armies before long.”
“I am Matsu,” Fumiyo replied hotly. “I know nothing else than to serve with honor.”
“Of course,” Kenji replied. She smiled. “Remember that conviction, Fumiyo-san, and bring Matsu’s vengeance down upon the enemies of the empire.”
The open plains of the eastern Unicorn lands were glorious at all times of the year, but in some respects it was now, at the early weeks of winter, that they were most magnificent to Moto Jin-sahn. The reason was not something he could immediately identify. Perhaps it was the stark contrast between the still-golden fields and the slate-grey sky. Perhaps it was not the appearance of the land at all, but the welcome sting of the crisp winter air. Regardless, it was always a glorious sight, and one that filled Jin-sahn’s heart with joy.
How ironic that now, when he had made his greatest achievement in the name of his family and clan, that his homecoming should be so bittersweet. He had known Moto Chen, the Unicorn Clan Khan, all of his life, and never before had he dreaded seeing him. What manner of blessing was this?
“Are you well, Shogun?”
Jin-sahn turned to face the Phoenix riding at his left. The man’s eyes were clear and piercing as always. Even in the short time since he had met Shiba Danjuro, he had come to value that quiet strength and resilience. “All is well, Danjuro,” he said. “This is simply… different.”
“I was uncomfortable as well, when first I found myself in the role of commander,” Danjuro admitted. “The first time I went to speak to my Champion after assuming the position as the Shogun’s chief shireikan, I felt… awkward. We were not on equal footing, but neither was I fully his to command any longer. I felt almost traitorous. But of course he was a good and honorable man, and he understood my conflict.” He smiled. “Your situation is different, for you are now the equal of your Khan. But Moto Chen is an honorable man, and your discomfort will prove to be misplaced. You will see.”
“That remains to be seen,” Jin-sahn said. “I feel quite certain, however, that a commanding officer’s subordinate is not supposed to be wiser than him.”
“Well, should you fall in battle I would think you would feel better knowing your forces were in good hands,” Danjuro said dryly. “Or if you should suddenly decide to wander the Empire in disguise as a ronin. That happens, on occasion.”
* * *
The celebration of his arrival at Shiro Moto was unlike anything Jin-sahn could remember in his lifetime. Even the great festivals of the season could not compare to the fanfare he witnessed upon the procession of his forces reaching the clan’s castle. He had brought with him only a thousand men, plus the Lion forces with whom he would combine ranks immediately before entering the Shinomen forest. It was only a fraction of the forces now under his command, and it seemed that there were many times that number celebrating his arrival. Both the Emerald Champion and Danjuro had encouraged him to bring a larger force, but Danjuro had experience in the Shinomen Mori, and knew that a larger force would prove ineffective. No, he hoped to supplement his forces with scouts on loan from the Khol.
The Khan stood at the gates of Shiro Moto, splendid in his finest armor, and with his beautiful bride and daughter at his side. When Jin-sahn dismounted and bowed before the Khan, all grew silent. Moto Chen stepped forward and touched his friend’s shoulder lightly, biding him rise. Then he turned and faced those who had come to see him. He drew his scimitar and held it aloft. “All hail Moto Jin-sahn, Shogun of Rokugan!”
The roar of the crowd was deafening. Paper and other objects were thrown into the air, giving it the appearance of a multi-colored snow for a few brief seconds. Jin-sahn struggled to look pleased, but inwardly he wondered if the Lords of Death would be pleased at such a display. He suspected they would find it both wasteful and presumptuous.
“Welcome home, my friend,” Chen said with a grin. “Come inside. There is much for us to talk about.”
* * *
A short time later, Jin-sahn and Danjuro were enjoying the hospitality of the Khan and his wife in a large private audience chamber within the castle. A variety of Unicorn delicacies were available, and while Jin-sahn was pleased to see them after the trip, Danjuro seemed curiously disinterested in most of them.
“A thousand men,” Chen observed, pouring a cup of tea and handing it to Akasha. “I would have expected the Shogun to have greater resources at his disposal!”
“Truth be told there is a score of legions,” Jin-sahn began.
“My husband is teasing you,” Akasha said, offering a cup of more traditional tea blends to Danjuro, who bowed. “We are of course familiar with the Shogunate’s forces. A formidable force at your command, Jin-sahn. We are all very proud.”
“Thank you, my lady,” Jin-sahn said quietly. “I am… unworthy of such praise.”
“I would respectfully disagree,” Danjuro added.
“Ha!” Chen laughed. “See? A good judge of character, that one. No wonder you kept him on.”
“Humility is one of the precepts of the Lords of Death,” Akasha said to Danjuro. “I believe compliments make Jin-sahn somewhat uncomfortable. It might be considered teasing for us to laud him so, but we consider it a means of affirming his faith.”
Danjuro might have frowned slightly, but said nothing.
“I received the message you sent ahead,” Chen said. “I can have all the issues you mentioned handled very shortly. There was one I was curious about, however.”
Chen nodded. “This ronin, he was a magistrate at Zakyo Toshi?”
“He was,” Jin-sahn confirmed. “He was appointed to that position as a result of his affiliation with my predecessor. He was essentially ousted from his duties there by Scorpion intervention, in the form of the Emerald Champion ceding control over the city to his clan.”
“Bah,” Chen said. “What a sickening abuse of authority. That man should have been executed for even attempting to enter the Championship. That he was allowed victory is a testament to how badly we needed an Empress in the first place.”
“Husband,” Akasha said. “Jin-sahn must work closely with Shosuro Jimen now. It is unseemly to speak of him in such… less than glowing terms.”
“Ah, yes,” Chen nodded. “I see. My apologies. Well, regardless, in this case there is something I can do about it, perhaps. If you can attest to this man’s character, this ronin Etsushi, then I will gladly see to it he is offered fealty.”
“I have only met him once,” Jin-sahn said, “but Danjuro speaks highly of him, and that is sufficient for me, I think.”
“He is a good man,” Danjuro confirmed. “Somewhat boisterous, but devoted to his cause. His father was the leader of the Hidden Sword some years ago, before they were eradicated by the Forest Killers. Etsushi and his brother reformed the group before re-entering the Shogun’s service.”
“He was held in esteem by Lord Kaneka,” Chen nodded appreciatively. “Any friend of so noble a Lord as the previous Shogun is worthy. I will speak to Genki tomorrow.” He glanced at the scroll on the desk again. “About your other request… how many scout patrols do you require?”
“Five, if possible,” Jin-sahn said. “I am loathe to make such a request, my lord, but I have need of men who are familiar with the Shinomen.”
Chen nodded grimly. “Our forces are scarce following the war, but we can manage that number. It is the least we can do for our Empress and her Shogun.”
“I would request Moto Chiang’s squadron, if I may,” Jin-sahn said. “I am familiar with them from the war, and I trust Chiang above all others.”
Akasha had a wistful expression. “I regret to inform you that Chiang and his men are currently deployed in the Western Steppes. They will be unavailable for some weeks.”
Jin-sahn shook his head. “I cannot wait that long. We must leave as soon as possible. When can the scouts be ready?”
“By morning,” Chen said. “What is the purpose of your work in the Shinomen?”
That was the question that Jin-sahn had been dreading since the moment of his departure from the Imperial City. “I am sorry, my lord,” he said, “but I cannot tell you that.”
Chen and Akasha both stopped. Akasha looked at Jin-sahn curiously, and then to Chen, whose expression was stormy. “What do you mean?”
“I am sorry, my lord,” Jin-sahn repeated, “but the nature of my work is confidential. My orders came from the Voice of the Empress. I cannot speak of it to any save those among the Empress’ Chosen and my immediate subordinates within the Shogunate.”
Chen was quiet for a moment. “I wish to make absolutely certain that I understand the situation completely,” he finally said. “You wish to make use of Unicorn resources to conduct operations within the Shinomen Mori, where we have several outposts as well as the Naga ruins we are honor-bound to protect…”
“I will need use of those resources, and you may be required to recall some of your personnel until the operation is over,” Jin-sahn added.
“…but we are not permitted to know the purpose of any of this?”
“No, my lord.”
“You will forgive me if I say I find this… distasteful.”
“You are well within your rights,” Jin-sahn said. “I find the notion of restricting information to you in this manner bordering upon the offensive, but I have sworn oaths before my Empress, and I have no choice but to obey.”
Akasha smiled slightly. “You can do no less. We understand that.”
“Do we?” Chen said darkly. “This is the honor that the Unicorn have received by having one of their own declared the Favored of the Heavens, and granted the position of Shogun of the Empire?”
“As partial compensation for the imposition I must make upon my clan,” Jin-sahn said, withdrawing a scroll from his obi, “I have secured documents from the Empress ensuring that once my duties within the forest are completed, any and all resources within the forest are to be overseen and adjudicated by the Unicorn as you see fit, my Khan.” He held the scroll out. “It is all I can do for you, Chen-sama. I am sorry.”
Chen hesitated, then took the scroll. “Imperial validation of a duty we have been performing for many years. Authority to use the resources that we protect in the Empress’ name would indeed be welcome.”
“I am bound by my oaths, but I will never betray the Unicorn as long as I draw breath,” Jin-sahn said. “I only pray that the Lords of Death will show me favor, and permit me to serve both my Empress and my Khan with equal dedication.”
“History proves that unlikely,” Chen said. “But if any man can succeed, it will be you.”
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